It's been a second-half struggle for Indians, Tigers
Originally Published: August 21, 2007By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com
Did the Cleveland Indians get the message?This is their year to be the American League Central's leading team, taking their turn in a rotation that in recent years has included the Tigers, White Sox and Twins. They can't seem, however, to get out of their own way and let it happen. If the Indians had kept playing the way they did before the All-Star break, they would be taking a 6½-game lead into this week's three-game series against the skidding Tigers at Detroit's Comerica Park. This would be a chance to deal a death blow to Detroit, which is showing all the signs of PPS (Post Pennant Syndrome).
Instead, even unflappable manager Eric Wedge has been flapped. His Cleveland team greeted his new lifetime contract (actually an extension that takes him through 2010) with a 16-19 start to the second half that has created some new math in the AL playoff race. Because the Yankees were running through starting pitchers like they were the Washington Nationals, it seemed a safe assumption that the wild card would come from the deep Central. Cleveland, Detroit and Minnesota all seemed good candidates to win 90-plus games, maybe even 95-plus. But the Yankees' awakening and the continued good play of the Mariners have refocused attention on the division race. The Indians and Tigers meet six more times this season, with only one series (Sept. 17-19 in Cleveland) remaining after this one. The team that survives will be the one that does the best job dealing with its scar tissue. For Cleveland, the damage is psychological. The Indians have a talented roster, but they haven't reached the postseason with it. Five of the nine regulars and two-fifths of the starting rotation (three-fifths if you count lefty Cliff Lee, who was pitching so badly he was shipped to Triple-A last month) were around for the 1-6 collapse in 2005, which caused them to miss the playoffs after their 40-13 run in August and September. For Detroit, the damage is physical. Like the White Sox last year, their pitching staff is showing the strain caused by a run to the World Series. The staff ERA has jumped from a league-best 3.84 to 4.73, which ranks 11th. The cause is twofold: the injuries that have sidelined 42-year-old staff leader Kenny Rogers and set-up man extraordinaire Joel Zumaya, and a drop in effectiveness by Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and much of the bullpen, including 39-year-old closer Todd Jones. Zumaya returns for the Indians series after making three rehab outings in the minors. He will be greeted like a savior when he makes his first jog across the outfield on the way to the mound, but no one really knows whether he'll be his old self after missing more than half of the season with a ruptured tendon in his index finger. There's a violence in his pitching motion and the 100-mph fastball and snapdragon curve it produces. Scouts are curious about whether he can command the strike zone with quality pitches after such a stop-and-start season. "I'm not going to use [Zumaya] as a long man,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said on Sunday in New York, where Detroit lost for the third time in four games against the Yankees. "Obviously he's coming back because he's ready to pitch, and if he's ready to pitch, I'm going to put him in there.'' Zumaya is only one piece of the puzzle for the Tigers, who are suddenly a team in transition.
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJoel Zumaya has been activated by the Tigers after being on the disabled list with a finger injury since May 1.
These guys have to dig deep. We've got some leaders out there, guys who have been here three or four years. It's time for some guys to step up.
Indians manager Eric Wedge